By Andy Eide
Chicago and Charlotte are two cities that sit thousands of miles away from Seattle. Yet, as the Chicago Wolves get set to play the Charlotte Checkers in the American Hockey League’s Calder Cup Final, both teams have a distinct Northwest flavor. Game 1 of the Final gets underway Saturday night in Charlotte and the two teams have key players who cut their teeth locally, playing in the Western Hockey League’s U.S. Division.
For the Charlotte Checkers, they advanced to the Final in dramatic, double overtime fashion when former Tri-City Americans star Morgan Geekie drove the net against the Toronto Marlies. He got the puck from teammate Steven Lorentz and banged it home for the series winner.
“I don’t know if anything really compares to that one,” Geekie says about the goal. “To send your team off like that. Definitely very special and something that I’ll hold close to me forever, that’s for sure. I just seemed to be in the right place at the right time, things seem to happen when you go to the net.”
Chicago got a game-winner from another U.S. Division guy to clinch its series against the San Diego Gulls.
While not as dramatic, former Seattle Thunderbirds forward Keegan Kolesar scored his fifth postseason goal in the third period for a 3-1 series winner. Kolesar has scored big goals before, most notably his third-period goal in Game 6 of the WHL Championship Series in Regina that sent the game into overtime where Seattle would prevail for its first ever league title.
Two big goals in big moments, but which one was bigger to Kolesar?
“That’s a tough one,” he says. “Just because we were down by two and we came back for our first championship, I’d say that one with Seattle was bigger.”
Geekie’s marker was his seventh during the Calder Cup playoffs and comes on the heels of an impressive 19 goal, 27 assist and 46-point rookie season in the AHL. Originally a third-round pick of the Carolina Hurricanes in the 2017 NHL Draft, Geekie was a prolific goal scorer in Tri-City with the Americans.
He ended his WHL career by playing in 216 games for the Americans while scoring 78 times and adding 124 assists. Just 20 years-old, he is off to a solid start to his professional career and appears to be transitioning well in a higher level of hockey.
“You kind of run off adrenaline the first couple of weeks,” he says. “Then you settle in and things kind of catch up to you. You’re playing with men at a higher speed and everything. That was big for me, just getting used to how things are played at the professional level. I can’t thank the coaching staff enough for looking out for me along the way, it’s been awesome.”
Geekie isn’t the only Tri-City Americans alumni playing in Charlotte.
Former Carolina first-round pick Jake Bean was a fellow rookie with the Checkers this season. The defenseman was acquired by the Americans during the trade deadline in the 2017-2018 season and was with Geekie for Tri-City’s playoff run to the Western Conference Finals in the spring of 2018.
This year, he’s played in 70 AHL games with Charlotte and scored 13 goals to go with 31 assists. He also managed to make his NHL debut and appeared in two contests for the Hurricanes. Geekie says having a former teammate with him this year has been a positive.
“When you can go in there and know that you’re kind of in it together,” he added. “It’s good. We had the run with Tri last year and we’re looking forward to doing it again this year.”
Kolesar is in his second professional year in the AHL and with Chicago.
Last year he experienced an up and down campaign that included a stint in the ECHL, injuries and learning the ropes of playing at the next level.
Things have been more consistent for him this season. He played 74 games with the Wolves and notched 20 goals. He was drafted by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the third round of the 2015 draft but would be sent to Vegas for a second-round pick before the 2017-2018 season began.
“I’m pretty confident with where my game is right now,” he says about his year. “Obviously, I want to still build on it and get better every day because as quick as it can come, it can go, like that. I think this year I really shot more. In junior I had that mindset playing with (Ryan Gropp) and (Mathew Barzal) that we were a pretty skilled line and could finesse our way. In pro, I’m a tadpole and I’m one of the young guys in the league and couldn’t do that. The biggest thing the coaching staff talked to me about was just being a shooter.”
At the end of Chicago’s regular season, Kolesar got a new teammate, one that he was familiar with.
When the Portland Winterhawks were eliminated in the first round of the WHL playoffs by the Spokane Chiefs, Cody Glass was called up by the Wolves. He was the first ever draft pick by the Vegas Golden Knights, who selected him with the sixth overall pick in the 2017 NHL Draft.
Portland and Seattle have a long and heated rivalry, but the two players share a history and despite playing against each other for two seasons in the WHL, are friends who both grew up in Winnipeg.
“It’s been fun having him, he’s been a great addition,” Kolesar says. “He’s really solidified himself and you see the skill, I think he had two goals in his first game. You see the skill, the hockey sense and a mind for the game. Not many people can transition into the pro game like he did.”
Glass says the Portland-Seattle rivalry, at least when it comes to Kolesar, is in the past.
“We’ve grown up and gone through the same path,” Glass adds. “A former Thunderbird and Winterhawk, you’d think we’d be enemies, but we’ve been really good friends ever since we both joined Vegas. He’s helped me a lot since I’ve been here, I appreciate him a lot.”
After a monster 102-point season as an 18-year-old with the Winterhawks in 2017-2018, Glass experienced a whirlwind year this season. It included playing for Canada at the World Juniors but then finished with a frustrating leg injury that forced him to miss most of Portland’s stretch run and limited him to only playing in the Winterhawks final postseason game.
He did score a goal in that last game and soon was on his way to the AHL.
Once in Chicago, and healthy, he wasted no time making an impact. He played in six regular season games, scoring three times, and has been a contributor during the Wolves playoff run. In 17 postseason contests he’s scored six goals, adding six helpers for 12 points.
It’s a welcome finish after a frustrating injury.
“It was one of those things where I didn’t really know when I was going to come back,” he says of his injury. “I would feel good, play a couple of games and reinjure it again. It’s kind of one of those things where I was just going to take my time with it. It was really stressful too, I felt like I was never going to get better. Coming back in that last game there, just wanted to do my best for the team.
“It was kind of a tough process because I wanted to play more in my last season in Portland and make if further than we did. I think just taking my time with it and trying to get to 100-percent was huge. Coming to Chicago and being able to play pro was a huge step in the right direction I think. It’s been fun so far.”
The expectations are high for Glass, who was a top 10 pick in the NHL Draft.
That he has played well in big situations shouldn’t come as a big surprise. Playing in the World Juniors, for Canada, is about as hot a pressure cooker as any player can experience. Its an experience that can be leaned on now, in a big playoff series.
“Playing against top players always helps, especially at high stage like that,” Glass says. “It’s always going to prepare you for the next level. Just in those moments where you need to win a face off, or something like that, the pressure just eases off you. I think it helped a lot, especially the skill and speed I was playing at.”
Playing for a championship is becoming old hat for Kolesar.
His last two seasons in Seattle he was part of a Thunderbirds team that made it to the WHL Championship Series in back-to-back years. They lost to the Brandon Wheat Kings during his 18-year-old season but would win the following year in a run that saw him pot 19 goals while piling up 31 points.
Kolesar says the memories of winning it with Seattle are ones that he will always cherish and helped prepare him for hockey at the next level.
“I absolutely love everything about playoffs,” he says. “Going on the long runs in junior and winning, it prepares you for these kinds of runs. That’s what teams want. They want their young guys, their prospects to go far so they have this kind of experience and not get caught with their pants down. They’re going to know how to handle the situation and play well.”
At times, the hockey world can feel small and for the four U.S. Division players, continuing their old battles is a fun proposition.
Many of them played against, or with, each other as kids, in junior, and now in the pros.
“It’s cool to see guys playing at the next level,” Geekie says. “It will be interesting. We don’t know much about each other with Chicago and Charlotte. The stakes are going to be high for all the right reasons and it will be exciting to rekindle that a little bit.”
For the players on both teams, the dream is to advance and play in the NHL at some point.
Those pro dreams are on hold for the next couple of weeks, however. The immediate task at hand is the only thing they’re worried about. The NHL can wait just a bit longer.
“I’m focused on winning a championship here,” Glass says. “It’s the short-term goal and Vegas is the long-term goal.”
Game 1 of the Calder Cup Final is Saturday night at 6 p.m. local time and can be seen live on the NHL Network or streamed at AHL TV.